Blowing Up a Feeble Defense of Ben Stein

You’ll recall Ben Stein’s ethical lapse last month that got him fired from his plum Sunday business column in The New York Times.

You know, the one where he shilled on TV for Free Score, one of those Web sites that gets people to sign up for a “free” credit score and hopes that they forget to cancel their membership before the free week is up. If they forget, they start getting hit with $30 monthly charges every month for a service they don’t need.

This is cut and dry an ethics case. There’s no gray here. Stein clearly violated the Times’s ethics rules specifically, common-sense journalistic rules generally, and even more broadly, just plain old do-unto-others ethics.

So it’s bizarre to see Edward Wasserman, Knight professor of journalism ethics, no less, at Washington and Lee and Miami Herald columnist, comes to Stein’s defense today in a poorly argued column arguing that he violated no ethical bounds.

Felix Salmon of Reuters, who broke the Ben Stein ad story, guts this nonsense like a trout (UPDATE: Bad fish pun was not intended.) There’s little left on the bone for me, so just go read Salmon. Here’s the money graph:

Firstly, and most importantly, it’s ethically wrong for anybody, NYT columnist or otherwise, to shill for FreeScore. It’s an evil company, devoted to tricking America’s poorest, most indebted, and most financially illiterate citizens into paying money they can’t afford for a service they don’t need and which is available for free elsewhere. The job of a business columnist is to write columns in the public interest. The job of a FreeScore pitchman is most emphatically against the public interest. There’s your conflict right there.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.